27 Feb 2017
"Just a tackle." The words will become a part of rugby history whenever this Six Nations Test is recalled.
By Paul Dobson, Moonsport
It was a tactic/scheme that nearly worked when Italy played England at Twickenham and shocked the world by leading 10-5 at half-time.
Just over a minute into the match, Edoardo Gori, Italy's scrumhalf, kicked high. Mike Brown of England jumped, caught the ball and is tackled by Giovanbattista Venditti and Sergio Parisse. All three go to ground.
The referee calls: "Just a tackle." When the ball comes back to England's scrumhalf Danny Care, Gori and Braam Steyn are between him and his flyhalf. The referee lets play go on and there is a grumbling around Twickenham.
When something similar happens when Italy are tackled, the referee again proclaims: "Just a tackle."
The third time it happens, when England are again tackled, the noise in the crowd is angry. All great grounds believe that their crowd is knowledgeable and they hope they are sporting. This time the Twickenham crowd were neither knowledgeable nor sporting.
The Italians were within their rights to do what they did, and the referee was right to let play go on.
When the referee said it was just a tackle, he was saying that there was no ruck. And at a tackle, there is no offside line across the field as there is for a ruck.
At a tackle, there is only a limitation on players at the tackle or near (within one metre) the tackle who want to play the ball. In that first incident, neither Gori nor Steyn was within a metre and neither was playing the ball.
They looked to be in the wrong but are within the laws of today.
Law 16 Definitions
A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground. Open play has ended.
If no Italian players on their feet made contact with England players on their feet in this way, there is no ruck. There is "just a tackle", and a tackle does not create offside lines.
There was a brief time when an offside line was produced at a tackle but that produced problems and was scrapped. But it would seem that the lawmakers would be concerned by Italy's clever exploitation. They have tried to create space and their own laws allow this closing down of space.
The English confusion and angry reaction, by experienced players like Dylan Hartley, James Haskell and Owen Farrell, was not edifying. Asking the referee what they should do showed their confusion and frustration.
There is here a question of referee management as well. The "Just a tackle" call became a clarion call to the Italians. They did not need to know their laws but could do what they did with confidence because they had the backing of the referee's call.
"Ball out" works in much the same way. The referee on Saturday said to the English that he was not their coach, but in a sense "Just a tackle" was coaching as it told the Italians how to play.
It certainly was an interesting happening and will stay in rugby minds for a long time to come. It also produced an interesting contest out of what was expected to be a one-sided affair.